In addition to capturing solar gain, Pura Vida takes advantage of another source of free heat (and cooling): from the relatively constant temperature of the ground. In Europe, earth tubes are often buried around the foundation of homes to provide tempered fresh air, but in the United States, there has been concern that earth tubes can grow mold or mildew. With Pura Vida, and subsequent buildings I have designed, an “earth room”—a modified approach to earth tubes—has been successful.
In Pura Vida, the earth room lies below the front porch. A short, 12-inch-diameter tube brings fresh outdoor air into one end of the earth room. The air flows the length of the 48-foot-long room where it is preheated (in the fall and winter) or precooled (spring and summer) through direct contact with the concrete walls prior to entering a heat recovery ventilator (HRV). The earth room is like a large thermal battery, storing heat in the summer for use in the fall and winter and storing “coolness” in the winter for use in the spring and summer. The earth room eliminates the need to use a conventional mechanical heating system for about two months of the year (October and November) and eliminates the need to run a cooling system from mid-May to mid-June. Throughout the rest of year, the earth room significantly reduces the heating and cooling loads.
After passing through the earth room, the air enters the Nu-Air Ventilation Enerboss, a complete heating, filtration, and HRV system. An efficient fan constantly pulls air from the bathrooms and kitchen, which is exhausted, while the same amount of fresh air is evenly distributed throughout the home by an airflow-balanced high-velocity duct system. The system has operated flawlessly for the past five years. The Enerboss system requires an external source of hot water for heating the air to be distributed. In Pura Vida, we use a 4.5 kW Marathon water heater to provide hot water to the heat exchanger coils within the Enerboss. Air conditioning is provided by a 3-ton, 16 SEER Lennox Elite. The evaporator for the AC unit is mounted on top of the Enerboss.
Visitors to Pura Vida often comment how fresh the air is and how quiet it is within the home. The comfort provided by constantly filtered fresh air moving throughout the home makes it difficult to go back to living with a conventional HVAC system.
A small Nyle Systems air-to-water heat pump mounted on a wall in the earth room provides domestic water heating. A timer is programmed to turn it on in the evenings when the time-of-use electricity price is $0.02 to $0.03 per kWh. The hot water is stored in a well-insulated 105-gallon Marathon water heater for use during the day. The average monthly cost for domestic hot water is about $5. (The timer is bypassed when we have guests or need to use more hot water.)
We also have a GFX Technologies wastewater-to-water heat exchanger. Although the concept of recovering the energy in hot water going down the drain is an interesting one, the high cost of copper makes this technology too expensive to be cost-effective for the amount of preheated water the unit provides.
Six Lascar temperature and humidity sensors were placed throughout the home, outside, and in the earth room. Data collected from these sensors every 30 minutes for the past five years—along with energy use data collected from several TED (The Energy Detective) units and our utility bills—have validated the home’s performance.
The all-electric home’s advantage is that we can measure and directly compare the energy use for every appliance and system. Having collected data on the efficiency of the air-to-water heat pump in the earth room for providing domestic hot water, I plan to modify the heating system to include a second heat pump, instead of the existing water heater, for space heating. This should reduce the electricity demand for space heating by at least 60%.
When the home was built, we also decided to sign up for time-of-use utility metering. This utility billing method provides us with cheaper energy during off-peak times, and more expensive energy during peak times. The risk we took with this decision was that if we needed to use large amounts of energy during peak times—like running air conditioning midday during the summer—the cost could be significantly higher. The table (upper right) shows our average annual energy use for the various portions of the property along with an approximate annual cost for each.
Because of the relatively high upfront cost of renewable electricity systems, we felt it was important to first design and build a home that is as efficient as possible—and then get a good understanding of the home’s energy demands. A year after the home was completed, we applied for and received a state grant to measure the effectiveness of residential small wind systems.
We installed a 2.4 kW Southwest Windpower Skystream 3.7 turbine on a 60-foot tower (at the time, we did not understand that height is too short for nearly all applications). The utility account was converted to net metering so that we could sell our excess energy back to Commonwealth Edison. The energy production from the Skystream was monitored through a Zigbee data system and logged on a computer.